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Hello to Here - Erev Rosh Hashanah 5783

Rabbi Toba Spitzer

So here we are, back where we used to be – and nowhere near where we used to be. Back in our “regular” High Holydays sanctuary space, as we’ve been for so many years – but this year, we are wearing masks. This year, we are able to beam in folks from across the country via YouTube. This year, we are in our third High Holydays season marked by the coronavirus pandemic. The same; and different. Here we are; and what, exactly, is here?

With thanks to Sheree Galpert for turning me on to the profound, provocative Irish poet and theologican, Padraig O’ Tuama, I want to share with you a selection from his book In the Shelter: Finding a Home in the World (Broadleaf Books 2021), where he addresses this question of “here.”  

O’Tuama begins with lines from another poet – he writes:

“My favorite poem from David Wagoner is 'Lost': 
Stand still. 
The trees ahead and bushes beside you 
Are not lost. 
Wherever you are is called Here 
And you must treat it as a powerful stranger

The selection from Wagoner’s poem ends there, and O’Tuama continues:

“The truth of this poem is an old truth. There are the places you wish to go, there are the places you desperately wish you never left, there are the places you imagine you should be, and there is the place called here. 

“In the world of Wagoner’s poem, it is the rooted things — trees and bushes — that tell the truth to the person who is lost, the person with legs and fear who wishes to be elsewhere. The person must stand still, feel their body still on the ground where they are, in order to learn the wisdom. This is not easy wisdom; it is frightening wisdom. In Irish, there is a phrase…that translates as 'for fear of fear.' It is true that there are some things that we fear, but that there is, even deeper, a fear of fear. So we are prevented from being here not only by being frightened of certain places, but by the fear of being frightened of certain places. So 'Stand still,' the poet advises. Learn from the things that are already in the place where you wish you were not. Hello to the fear of fear. Hello to here.”

So, as we begin this Jewish new year, I would love to say, “Hello to here.”

A little more from O’Tuama:

“What I do know is that it can help to find the words to tell the truth of where you are now. If you can find the courage to name 'here' — especially in the place where you do not wish to be — it can help you be there. Instead of resenting another’s words of gladness or pain, it may be possible to hear it as simply another location. They are there and I am here. At another point, we will be in different locations, and everybody will pass by many locations in their life. The pain is only deepened when the location is resented or, even worse, unnamed. Hello to here.” 

Hello to here. This is a beautiful refrain for beginning our journey this Rosh Hashanah. Where are we? What is this “here” that we occupy this year? Where am I? Where are you?

I know for many, perhaps all of us, we are “here” after a challenging, exhausting, confusing, and uncertain past few years. Whether or not we or our loved ones have suffered physically from Covid, the stress of the initial uncertainty, then being cut off from loved ones, the disruptions to our daily lives, to our children’s lives, the strain of not knowing when it would get better, if it would ever get better – I know this has taken a toll on all of us. I have a very real sense that we – we here together tonight, and in our world at large – are frayed, our nerves are frayed, our inner resources are depleted. And not just from the pandemic, but from all of the turmoil and difficulty that we’ve dealt with, in our personal lives or in our experiences of the world around us. There is a pandemic of exhaustion, of weariness, even for those of us who feel relatively privileged and blessed. 

So, O’Tuama says, say “hello to here.”  

So let’s take a moment, and feel ourselves here. Take a breath. Feel your body in your chair. For those of you whose “here” is not in this room, but in your home or another location, feel yourself there. If you’d like, close your eyes. What is “here” for you, in this moment? What is happening in your body? In your heart? Can you allow yourself to feel whatever might arise? We’re going to just take a moment, and say hello to “here.”

O’Tuama goes on to say:

“Where is it that we are when we pray? We are, obviously, in the place where we are. However, we are often in many places. We are saying to ourselves, 'I should be somewhere else' or 'I should be someone else' or 'I am not where I say I am.' In prayer, to begin where you are not is a poor beginning. To begin where you are may take courage, or compromise, or painful truth telling. Whatever it takes, it’s wise to begin there. The only place to begin is where I am, and whether by desire or disaster, I am here. My being here is not dependent on my recognition of the fact. I am here anyway. But it might help if I could learn to look around.”

I love this intention that he offers us, as we enter these Yamim Noraim, these Days of Awe, that are filled with so much prayer: “In prayer, to begin where you are not is a poor beginning. To begin where you are may take courage, or compromise, or painful truth telling. Whatever it takes, it’s wise to begin there.”  

We might feel a tension here, between the desire to do the work of teshuvah, to make ourselves better, to live our lives better, and O’Tuama’s instruction to begin where we are. Shouldn’t we be focusing on where we have not yet arrived – the place where we are not yet? But there is a very compassionate truth in his words. The only way from here to there is by beginning where I am. Instead of fighting myself, in place of making harsh judgments about myself or those around me, I can make the effort to get to know my location. This can then be the beginning of my prayer. Not because I’ll be here forever, but because, in this moment, I can’t actually be anywhere else. And, as a certain book title says, “God is Here.” Say hello to here.

On my meditation retreat this summer, I heard this teaching from the Zen Buddhist tradition: A student asked his master, what is the path to true happiness? The teacher replied: “The path to true happiness is complete, unrestricted cooperation with the unavoidable.”

The path to true happiness is complete, unrestricted cooperation with the unavoidable. What is unavoidable? The truth of this moment, whatever it is. This body, these thoughts and emotions, these sensations. To cooperate means to acknowledge and be with what is, to start from the place that I actually am, and not try to wish it away.

Cooperation with the unavoidable does not mean accepting the status quo as inevitable. There is so much in ourselves, so much in the world, that calls for change – and we need to do the work of change. When harm occurs, we need to respond. But the truth is that in any given moment, we experience what we experience, and wanting it to be different brings unhappiness. To “cooperate with the unavoidable” means not engaging in fruitless struggle. It means accepting that, for the moment, I am here, feeling what I am feeling, whether I like it or not. Cooperation means softening into the moment, letting go of resistance. It means having a lot of compassion for myself when I realize that I’m not thrilled with the unavoidable, that it causes me pain. Cooperation means working with what the world is giving me in this moment. 

A few more words from O’Tuama:

“What is the name for the place where you now are? It requires close looking; it requires the dedication of observation and a commitment to truth. To name a place requires us to be in a place. It requires us to resist dreaming of where we should be and look around where we are. Hello to here. Hello to the name of here.”

O’Tuama’s invitation, as I understand it, is that we begin our High Holydays journey from a place of embracing our truth – whatever that is for each of us. Ideally, this place we call a sanctuary – whether you are physically here in the room with us, or joining our extended sanctuary through the wonders of technology – this place can truly be a sanctuary. Not a place of hiding from reality, but a space in which we can each bring the truth of ourselves, the truth of our lives. A place where we can bring all of ourselves, all of our  brokenness, our pain as well as our joy, our questions and uncertainties, our hopes and our dissatisfactions. The parts of ourselves that we love, and the parts we can’t stand. A space where there is room for tears as well as room for dancing. And as O’Tuama invites us to “look around where we are,” I hope we can extend this invitation to one another – to truly be here, each in our uniqueness, each in our complexity, each naming, for ourselves, what we mean by “here.”  

On Rosh Hashanah, we celebrate the creation of the world and, even more specifically, the creation of humanity. In the story of the first humans in the Torah, they mess things up pretty quickly, eating from the Tree of knowledge of good and evil when they’ve been warned not to. The humans eat, then hear God’s Voice walking around the Garden of Eden, and they hide. The first question asked in the Bible is the question God asks of the first human: Ayeka? Where are you?

Adam answers, “I heard your Voice,  and I was afraid because I was naked, so I hid.”

Adam names the place he is in – a place of confusion and fear.  A few minutes later he’s blaming it all on the other human, Chava. But in this first response, he’s actually quite truthful. “I was afraid because I was naked, so I hid.” And this truthful answer makes God realize that something has changed – Adam has an awareness that he didn’t have before. The human has entered a new stage of development, and must start taking responsibility for his actions. In this moment, according to the Torah, human history begins.

Rosh Hashanah offers each of us the opportunity to become a new creation – a little bit like Adam and Chava.  As we become aware of our surroundings, the Divine question comes to each of us: “Ayeka? Where are you?” Perhaps we can aspire to Adam’s willingness to tell the truth.

I am here, feeling naked and afraid. 
I am here, with my confusion and my shame.  
I am here, with my burdens and my blessings.
I am here, with my curiosity and my commitment.

Hello to here.

So as we begin this ten day journey, the Aseret Yamei Teshuvah, the ten days of turning from Rosh Hashanah through Yom Kippur, I hope we can each find a bit of time to explore what is “here.” Where am I in my life, in this moment? What do I see, when I look around? What, if anything, have I been hiding from myself? What sustains me, in this place? What is obscuring my way forward?  

Whatever answers we discover, may we do so with a lot of compassion, a lot of tenderness, a lot of spaciousness in our hearts and minds. Whatever my “here” is, it is unavoidable. So I may as well cooperate with it. And out of that cooperation, my prayer is that each of us will gain the insight we need to take the next step, whatever that step might be. Hello to here. Hello to a new year. Shanah tovah!


Rabbi Toba Spitzer
Erev Rosh Hashanah 5783

Fri, December 8 2023 25 Kislev 5784